Posted on May 5, 2023 (5783) By Rabbi Label Lam | Series: | Level:

You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified (made holy) amidst the Children of Israel. I am HASHEM Who sanctifies you (makes you holy). (Vayikra 22:32)

Here’s the big problem/challenge that I encounter when learning these verses and especially when trying to teach them to or learn them with someone who has a limited background. How do we explain that ubiquitous word which seems to be the centerpiece of discussion over and over again, “HOLY”?! What does “HOLY” mean? Sure, we can define it as “set aside” or even “special” but that leaves us with a cold and empty feeling.

If someone grew up in a chaotic home, the term “Shalom Bais” awakens no imagery. It’s a blank file with some hollow words crowning it. If someone was raised in a world of dishonesty then EMES is a meaningless term as well. I remember as a Yeshiva student, new to Torah and Mitzvos sitting in the audience at many a lecture hearing the speaker repeatedly hammering the term, “Yiras Shemayim”, and thinking it meant “a year in Shamayim”. I didn’t even know what the words meant but even after I learned the true translation, I was left bereft. I had never experienced anyone who possessed that quality. I met lots of brilliant people and great athletes and some politicians too but none of them transferred that aura of Yiras Shemayim, and even if they did, I would not know what it looked or sounded or felt like. It’s like trying to explain pink to a blind person. So, what’s “HOLY”? How do we explain it? That is the question! That is the challenge!

It would be almost impossible to explain without having first experienced it. We are all capable of experiencing little by little at first and then developing a greater and greater desire and capacity.

The goal of all education is to whet the appetite by giving a taste of “ODE” (Hebrew) “MORE”! Once a young child tastes ice cream for the first time they begin to clammer for more and they wonder where the parents have been hiding this sweet secret all the time. They don’t want ground-up carrots anymore, and they haven’t even discovered chocolate yet!

I remember when this couple came for their first Shabbos. I had the sudden courage to challenge them and the time must have been right, so surprisingly they came. They were enchanted beyond. The delicious food. The quiet and gentle pace. The community feeling. The deep and restful nap. The singing and conversation. It’s hard to understand it if you were never there yourself. When it was over, they didn’t want to get back in the car. They wanted it to last. I assured them it was OK now and they could look forward to doing it again and again. They got a taste of the Holiness of Shabbos and were left wondering “where have we been all of our lives?!” They became Shomer Shabbos and raised a family of Shomer Shabbos children and now grandchildren. It’s a no brainer once one gets a taste of the goodness. It wasn’t me! It was Shabbos that sold itself!

The Talmud tells, “Im Ain Daas Havdala M’nayin?” – “If there is no knowledge then how can one make a distinction!?” If one never saw the color white in its purity or raw blackness then everything is a shade of gray. There is no black and there is no white. Everything is one drab admixture. Once one gets a glimpse of the brightness of whiteness then they can see it peeking out, even in the gray.

We are still left with the original lingering question. How do we translate and/or explain the word “HOLY”? I believe that the answer is that we can’t do justice to the word. It is not just a word. It is an experience. It’s a file of experiences richly organized with pictures, tastes, smells, relationships, knowledge, and colorful associations. Someone told me recently that a young man once came to the previous, previous Skverer Rebbe, whose name was Dovid Twersky, just like the present Rebbe and he said, “I only fear HASHEM!” The Rebbe replied to him, “Do you know how many YIRAS you have to go through to fear HASHEM!?” It’s a ladder that has to be climbed rung by rung. I am assuming it works that way with AHAVAS HASHEM. How many Ahavas do we have to go through to reach AHAVAS HASHEM, to truly love HASHEM!? It’s a ladder of experiences, one step fear and then one step love. There we will find HOLINESS!